The fifth in TFR’s Lockdown Recap series, capturing our quarantine viewing habits and the changing nature of cinema.
Following the closure of cinemas around the world, movie-goers turned to online streaming as it became more accessible. Here, Peter Horan discusses a favourite from MUBI’s recently-opened library.
Berlin: Symphony of a Great City
Written by Peter Horan
One of the few bright sparks of lockdown, at least from a cinematic perspective, has been the opening up of MUBI’s ‘Library’ section for all subscribers. Previously, the streaming service had operated on a 30-day rotatory basis in which one film was added and another taken away each day. Now, however, audiences can enjoy the mix of arthouse, world, and historical cinema whenever they please as the site opens its doors to its full, effortlessly tasteful catalogue for the first time.
One lesser-seen film now available to subscribers (the site is free for all film students) is Walter Ruttmann’s 1927 opus, Berlin: Symphony of a Great City. Although the film is not far off celebrating its centenary, contemporary audiences will surely be struck by its aptness and relevance to our current situation. Made several years before Joseph Goebbels’ Propaganda Ministry seized control of German film production, this avant-garde documentary blends real-life footage with experimental animation to produce a vision of the quotidian flurry of a pre-Nazi Berlin. Presented as a kind of ‘day-in-the-life’ (although shot over the course of a year), this hour-long film chronicles the hustle-and-bustle of urban street life, and, in doing so, captures the everyday human interactions which now feel taboo in our post-quarantine world.
Although the film is silent (the version on MUBI is accompanied by Timothy Brock’s 1993 score), it is imbued with a tempestuous energy thanks to its dazzling editing style. As keys on a typewriter spiral while a hypnotist’s wheel swirls, Ruttmann reflects the furious rhythm and velocity of what was, for better or worse, an increasingly-industrialised cityscape. The dizzying collages of emerging technologies at work may seem like evidence of Ruttmann’s approval of the speed of modern industry. A closer examination of his editorial selections – as images of office workers are juxtaposed with footage of animals fighting in the zoo – suggests that the filmmaker is, in fact, highly sceptical of the demanding nature of industrialisation; a message which surely rings true to this day.
Echoes of contemporary life aside, its historical significance in a cinematographic context should not be overlooked. Alongside works like Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera (1929), Ruttman’s film was a significant step towards establishing the “city symphony” tendency which became influential in the early filmic avant-garde. Such a movement has been replicated in more recent times by filmmakers like Mark Cousins and Terence Davies but, when it comes to embracing the creative potential of the celluloid, few can match Ruttmann’s formal playfulness.